Reality television is a genre of television programming that documents supposedly unscripted real-life situations, and often features an otherwise unknown cast of individuals who are typically not professional actors, although in some shows celebrities may participate. It differs from documentary television in that the focus tends to be on drama, personal conflict, and entertainment rather than educating viewers. An early term for the format was docu-soap. The genre has various standard tropes, including "confessionals" (also called talking heads or interview segments) used by cast members to express their thoughts, which often double as the shows' narration. In competition-based reality shows, a notable subset, there are other common elements such as one participant being eliminated per episode, a panel of judges, and the concept of "immunity from elimination."
An early example of the genre was the 1991 Dutch series Nummer 28, which was the first show to bring together strangers and record their interactions. It then exploded as a phenomenon in the late 1990s and early 2000s with the global success of the series Survivor, Idols, and Big Brother. These shows and a number of others (usually also competition-based) became global franchises, spawning local versions in dozens of countries. Reality television as a whole has become a fixture of television programming. In the United States, various channels have retooled themselves to focus on reality programs, most famously MTV, which began in 1981 as a music video pioneer, before switching to a nearly all-reality format in the early 2000s.
There are grey areas around what is classified as reality television. Documentaries, television news, sports television, talk shows, and traditional game shows are not classified as reality television, even though they contain elements of the genre, such as unscripted situations and sometimes unknown participants. Other genres that predate the reality television boom have sometimes been retroactively grouped into reality TV, including hidden camera shows such as Candid Camera (1948), talent-search shows such as The Original Amateur Hour (1948), documentary series about ordinary people such as the Up Series (1964), high-concept game shows such as The Dating Game (1965), home improvement shows such as This Old House (1979), and court shows featuring real-life cases such as The People's Court (1981).
Reality television has faced significant criticism since its rise in popularity. Much of the criticism has centered on the use of the word "reality", and such shows' attempt to present themselves as a straightforward recounting of events that have occurred. Critics have argued that reality television shows do not accurately reflect reality, in ways both implicit (participants being placed in artificial situations), and deceptive or even fraudulent, such as misleading editing, participants being coached in what to say or how to behave, storylines generated ahead of time, and scenes being staged or re-staged for the cameras. Other criticisms of reality television shows include that they are intended to humiliate or exploit participants (particularly on competition shows); that they make stars out of either untalented people unworthy of fame, infamous personalities, or both; and that they glamorize vulgarity and materialism.
Television formats portraying ordinary people in unscripted situations are almost as old as the television medium itself. Producer-host Allen Funt's Candid Camera, in which unsuspecting people were confronted with funny, unusual situations and filmed with hidden cameras, first aired in 1948, and is often seen as a prototype of reality television programming.
Precedents for television that portrayed people in unscripted situations began in the late 1940s. Queen for a Day (1945–1964) was an early example of reality-based television. The 1946 television game show Cash and Carry sometimes featured contestants performing stunts. Debuting in 1948, Allen Funt's hidden camera show Candid Camera (based on his previous 1947 radio show, Candid Microphone) broadcast unsuspecting ordinary people reacting to pranks. In 1948, talent search shows Ted Mack's Original Amateur Hour and Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts featured amateur competitors and audience voting. In the 1950s, game shows Beat the Clock and Truth or Consequences involved contestants in wacky competitions, stunts, and practical jokes. Confession was a crime/police show which aired from June 1958 to January 1959, with interviewer Jack Wyatt questioning criminals from assorted backgrounds. The radio series Nightwatch (1951–1955) tape-recorded the daily activities of Culver City, California police officers. The series You Asked for It (1950–1959) incorporated audience involvement by basing episodes around requests sent in by postcard from viewers.
First broadcast in the United Kingdom in 1964, the Granada Television documentary Seven Up!, broadcast interviews with a dozen ordinary 7-year-olds from a broad cross-section of society and inquired about their reactions to everyday life. Every seven years, a film documented the life of the same individuals during the intervening period, titled the Up Series, episodes include "7 Plus Seven", "21 Up", etc.; it is still ongoing. The program was structured as a series of interviews with no element of plot. However, it did have the then-new effect of turning ordinary people into celebrities. The first reality show in the modern sense may have been the series The American Sportsman, which ran from 1965 to 1986 on ABC in the United States. A typical episode featured one or more celebrities, and sometimes their family members, being accompanied by a camera crew on an outdoor adventure, such as hunting, fishing, hiking, scuba diving, rock climbing, wildlife photography, horseback riding, race car driving, and the like, with most of the resulting action and dialogue being unscripted, except for the narration.
Another precursor may be considered Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom which aired from 1963 through 1988. This show featured zoologist Marlin Perkins traveling across the globe and illustrating the wide variety of animal life on the planet. Though mostly a travelogue, it was popular in syndication and new episodes were produced through the eighties. In the 1966 Direct Cinema film Chelsea Girls, Andy Warhol filmed various acquaintances with no direction given; the Radio Times Guide to Film 2007 stated that the film was "to blame for reality television".
The 12-part 1973 PBS series An American Family showed a nuclear family (filmed in 1971) going through a divorce; unlike many later reality shows, it was more or less documentary in purpose and style. In 1974 a counterpart program, The Family, was made in the UK, following the working class Wilkins family of Reading. Other forerunners of modern reality television were the 1970s productions of Chuck Barris: The Dating Game, The Newlywed Game, and The Gong Show, all of which featured participants who were eager to sacrifice some of their privacy and dignity in a televised competition. In 1978, Living in the Past recreated life in an Iron Age English village.
Producer George Schlatter capitalized on the advent of videotape to create Real People, a surprise hit for NBC, which ran from 1979 to 1984. The success of Real People was quickly copied by ABC with That's Incredible, a stunt show co-hosted by Fran Tarkenton; CBS's entry into the genre was That's My Line, a series hosted by Bob Barker. The Canadian series Thrill of a Lifetime, a fantasies-fulfilled reality show, originally ran from 1982 to 1988 and was revived from 2001 to 2003. In 1985, underwater cinematographer Al Giddings teamed with former Miss Universe Shawn Weatherly on the NBC series Oceanquest, which chronicled Weatherly's adventures scuba diving in various exotic locales. Weatherly was nominated for an Emmy Award for Outstanding Achievement in informational programming. COPS, which first aired in the spring of 1989 on Fox and came about partly due to the need for new programming during the 1988 Writers Guild of America strike, showed police officers on duty apprehending criminals; it introduced the camcorder look and cinéma vérité feel of much of later reality television.
The series Nummer 28, which aired on Dutch television in 1991, originated the concept of putting strangers together in the same environment for an extended period of time and recording the drama that ensued. Nummer 28 also pioneered many of the stylistic conventions that have since become standard in reality television shows, including a heavy use of soundtrack music and the interspersing of events on screen with after-the-fact "confessionals" recorded by cast members, that serve as narration. One year later, the same concept was used by MTV in its new series The Real World. Nummer 28 creator Erik Latour has long claimed that The Real World was directly inspired by his show; however, the producers of The Real World have stated that their direct inspiration was An American Family. According to television commentator Charlie Brooker, this type of reality television was enabled by the advent of computer-based non-linear editing systems for video (such as produced by Avid Technology) in 1989. These systems made it easy to quickly edit hours of video footage into a usable form, something that had been very difficult to do before (film, which was easy to edit, was too expensive to shoot enough hours of footage with on a regular basis).
The 1994–95 O.J. Simpson murder case, starting with 90 minutes of live network television of Simpson being chased by police, has been described as a seminal moment in reality television, with coverage of the true-life drama interrupting regular television programming for months and dominating ratings and the public conversation. Many reality television stars of the 2000s and 2010s also have direct or indirect connections to people involved in the case, most notably defense attorney Robert Kardashian's daughter, Kim Kardashian, and several of her relatives and associates.
The series Expedition Robinson, created by television producer Charlie Parsons, which first aired in 1997 in Sweden (and was later produced in a large number of other countries as Survivor), added to the Nummer 28/Real World template the idea of competition and elimination, in which cast members/contestants battled against each other and were removed from the show until only one winner remained (these shows are now sometimes called elimination shows). Changing Rooms, a program that began in 1996, showed couples redecorating each other's houses, and was the first reality show with a self-improvement or makeover theme. The dating reality show Streetmate premiered in the UK in 1998. Originally created by Gabe Sachs as Street Match, it was a flop in the United States; however, the show was revamped in the UK by Tiger Aspect Productions and became a cult hit. The production team from the original series went on to create popular reality shows Strictly Come Dancing, Location, Location, Location, and the revamped MasterChef, amongst others. The 1980s and 1990s were also a time when tabloid talk shows came to rise, many of which featured the same types of unusual or dysfunctional guests who would later become popular as cast members of reality shows.
Reality television saw an explosion of global popularity in the late 1990s and early 2000s, with the successes of the Big Brother and Survivor/Expedition Robinson franchises. In the United States, reality television programs experienced a temporary decline in viewership in 2001, leading some entertainment industry columnists to speculate that the genre was a temporary fad that had run its course. Reality shows that suffered from low ratings included The Amazing Race (although the show has since recovered and is in its 29th edition), Lost (unrelated to the better-known serial drama of the same name) and The Mole (which was successful in other countries). However, this proved not to be the case for stronghold shows Survivor and American Idol, which both topped the U.S. season-average television ratings in the 2000s: Survivor led the ratings in 2001–02, and Idol has the longest hold on the No. 1 rank in the American television ratings, dominating over all other primetime programs and other television series in the overall viewership tallies for eight consecutive years, from the 2003–2004 to the 2010–2011 television seasons.
Internationally, a number of shows created in the late 1990s and 2000s have had massive global success. At least ten reality-television franchises created during that time have had over 30 international adaptations each: the singing competition franchises Idols, Star Academy  and The X Factor, other competition franchises Survivor/Expedition Robinson, Big Brother, Got Talent, Top Model, MasterChef, and Dancing with the Stars, and the investment franchise Dragons' Den. Several "reality game shows" from the same period have had even greater success, including Deal or No Deal, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, and Weakest Link, with over 50 international adaptions each. (All but two of these franchises, Top Model and Dragons' Den, were created by either British producers or the Dutch production company Endemol; and even Dragons' Den, which originated in Japan, has had most adaptations be based on the British version.) In India, the competition show Indian Idol was the most popular television program for its first six seasons.
The 2000s saw the launches of three television channels devoted exclusively to reality television: Fox Reality in the United States, which existed from 2005 to 2010; Global Reality Channel in Canada, which lasted two years from 2010 to 2012; and Zone Reality in the United Kingdom, which operated from 2002 to 2009. In addition, several other cable channels, including Bravo, A&E, E!, TLC, History, VH1, and MTV, changed their programming to mostly comprise reality television series during the 2000s.
During the early part of the 2000s, network executives expressed concern that reality-television programming was limited in its appeal for DVD reissue and syndication. DVDs for reality shows in fact sold briskly; Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County, The Amazing Race, Project Runway, and America's Next Top Model all ranked in the top DVDs sold on Amazon.com, and in the mid-2000s, DVDs of The Simple Life outranked scripted shows like The O.C. and Desperate Housewives. Syndication, however, has indeed proven problematic; shows such as Fear Factor, COPS, and Wife Swap in which each episode is self-contained, can indeed be rerun fairly easily, but usually only on cable television or during the daytime (COPS and America's Funniest Home Videos being exceptions). Season-long competitions such as The Amazing Race, Survivor, and America's Next Top Model generally perform more poorly and usually must be rerun in marathons to draw the necessary viewers to make it worthwhile (even in these cases, it is not always successful: the first ten seasons of Dancing with the Stars were picked up by GSN in 2012 and was run in marathon format, but experienced very poor ratings). Another option is to create documentaries around series including extended interviews with the participants and outtakes not seen in the original airings; the syndicated series American Idol Rewind is an example of this strategy.
COPS has had huge success in syndication, direct response sales and DVD. A Fox staple since 1989, COPS has, as of 2013 (when it moved to cable channel Spike), outlasted all competing scripted police shows. Another series that has seen wide success is Cheaters, which has been running since 2000 in the U.S. and is syndicated in over 100 countries worldwide. In 2001, the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences added the reality genre to the Emmy Awards in the category of Outstanding Reality Program. In 2003, to better differentiate between competition and informational reality programs, a second category, Outstanding Reality-Competition Program, was added. In 2008, a third category, Outstanding Host for a Reality or Reality-Competition Program, was added. In 2007, the web series The Next Internet Millionaire appeared; it was a competition show based in part on The Apprentice, and was billed as the world's first Internet reality show.
In 2010, The Tester became the first reality television show aired over a video game console. By 2012, many of the long-running reality television show franchises in the United States, such as American Idol, Dancing with the Stars and The Bachelor, had begun to see declining ratings. However, reality television as a whole remained durable in the U.S., with hundreds of shows across many channels. In 2012, New York Magazine's Vulture blog published a humorous Venn diagram showing popular themes across American reality shows then running, including shows set in the U.S. states of Alaska, Louisiana and Texas, shows about cakes, weddings and pawnbrokers, and shows, usually competition-based, whose title includes the word "Wars". The Voice, a singing competition franchise created by John de Mol that started in 2010, is the newest highly successful reality television franchise, with almost 50 international adaptations.
Duck Dynasty, a hunting-themed reality series featuring the Robertson family that founded Duck Commander, in 2013 became the most popular reality series in U.S. cable television history. Its fourth-season premiere was viewed by nearly 12 million viewers in the United States, most of which were in rural markets. Its rural audience share has ranked in the 30s, an extremely high number for any series, broadcast or cable. In 2014, Entertainment Weekly and Variety again noted a stagnation in reality television programs' ratings in the U.S., which they attributed to "The diminishing returns of cable TV's sea of reality sameness". They noted that a number of networks that featured reality programming, including Bravo and E!, were launching their first scripted shows, and others, including AMC, were abandoning plans to launch further reality programs; though they clarified that the genre as a whole "isn't going anywhere."
There have been various attempts to classify reality television shows into different subgenres:
Another categorization divides reality television into two types: shows that purport to document real life, and shows that place participants in new circumstances. In a 2003 paper, theorists Elisabeth Klaus and Stephanie Lücke referred to the former category as "docusoaps", which consist of "narrative reality", and the latter category as "reality soaps", which consist of "performative reality". Since 2014, the Primetime Emmy Awards have used a similar classification, with separate awards for "unstructured reality" and "structured reality" programs, as well as a third award for "reality-competition" programs.
In many reality television programs, camera shooting and footage editing give the viewer the impression that they are passive observers following people going about their daily personal and professional activities; this style of filming is sometimes referred to as fly on the wall or factual television. Story "plots" are often constructed via editing or planned situations, with the results resembling soap operas – hence the terms docusoap and docudrama. Documentary-style programs give viewers a private look into the lives of the subjects.
Within documentary-style reality television are several subcategories or variants:
Although the term "docusoap" has been used for many documentary-style reality television shows, there have been shows that have deliberately tried to mimic the appearance and structure of soap operas. Such shows often focus on a close-knit group of people and their shifting friendships and romantic relationships. One highly influential such series was the American 2004–2006 series Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County, which attempted to specifically mimic the primetime soap opera The O.C., which had begun airing in 2003. Laguna Beach had a more cinematic feel than any previous reality television show, through the use of higher-quality lighting and cameras, voice-over narration instead of on-screen "confessionals", and slower pacing. Laguna Beach led to several spinoff series, most notably the 2006–2010 series The Hills. It also inspired various other series, including the highly successful British series The Only Way Is Essex and Made in Chelsea, and the Australian series Freshwater Blue.
Due to their cinematic feel, many of these shows have been accused of being pre-scripted, more so than other reality television shows have. The producers of The Only Way Is Essex and Made in Chelsea have admitted to coaching cast members on what to say in order to draw more emotion from each scene, although they insist that the underlying stories are real.
Another highly successful group of soap-opera-style shows is the Real Housewives franchise, which began with The Real Housewives of Orange County in 2006 and has since spawned nearly twenty other series, in the U.S. and internationally. The franchise has an older cast and different personal dynamics than that of Laguna Beach and its imitators, as well as lower production values, but similarly is meant to resemble scripted soap operas – in this case, the television series Desperate Housewives and Peyton Place.
A notable subset of such series focus on a group of women who are romantically connected to male celebrities; these include Basketball Wives (2010), Love & Hip Hop (2011), Hollywood Exes (2012), Ex-Wives of Rock (2012) and WAGS (2015). Most of these shows have had spin-offs in multiple locations.
There are also fly-on-the-wall-style shows directly involving celebrities. Often these show a celebrity going about their everyday life: notable examples include The Anna Nicole Show, The Osbournes, Gene Simmons Family Jewels, Newlyweds: Nick and Jessica, Keeping Up with the Kardashians and Hogan Knows Best. VH1 in the mid-2000s had an entire block of such shows, known as "Celebreality". Shows such as these are often created with the idea of promoting a celebrity product or upcoming project.
Some documentary-style shows shed light on cultures and lifestyles rarely seen otherwise by most of their viewers. One example is shows about people with disabilities or people who have unusual physical circumstances, such as the American series Push Girls and Little People, Big World, and the British programmes Beyond Boundaries, Britain's Missing Top Model, The Undateables and Seven Dwarves.
Another example is shows that portray the lives of ethnic or religious minorities. Examples include All-American Muslim (Lebanese-American Muslims), Shahs of Sunset (affluent Persian-Americans), Sister Wives (polygamists from a Mormon splinter group), Breaking Amish and Amish Mafia (the Amish), and Washington Heights (Dominican Americans).
The Real Housewives franchise offers a window into the lives of social-striving urban and suburban housewives. Many shows focus on wealth and conspicuous consumption, including Platinum Weddings, and My Super Sweet 16, which documented huge coming of age celebrations thrown by wealthy parents. Conversely, the highly successful Here Comes Honey Boo Boo and Duck Dynasty are set in poorer rural areas of the Southern United States.
Some documentary-style shows portray professionals either going about day-to-day business or performing an entire project over the course of a series. One early example (and the longest running reality show of any genre) is Cops, which has been airing since 1989. Other such shows specifically relating to law enforcement include The First 48, Dog the Bounty Hunter, Police Stop!, Traffic Cops, Border Security and Motorway Patrol.
Shows that portray a set of people in the same line of work, occasionally competing with each other, include Deadliest Catch, Ice Road Truckers and Million Dollar Listing Los Angeles and its spinoffs.
One notable subset of shows about professional activities are those in which the professionals haggle and engage in financial transactions, often over unique or rare items whose value must first be appraised. Two such shows, both of which have led to multiple spinoff shows, are Pawn Stars (about pawn shops) and American Pickers. Other shows, while based around such financial transactions, also show elements of its main cast members' personal and professional lives; these shows include Hardcore Pawn and Comic Book Men. Such shows have some antecedent in the British series Antiques Roadshow, which began airing in 1979 and has since spawned numerous international versions, although that show includes only appraisals and does not include bargaining or other dramatic elements.
While for "documentary-style" shows it is implied that the events shown would still be taking place even if the cameras were not there, in other shows the events taking place are done overtly for the sake of the show. These shows differ from "reality competition" shows or "reality game shows" (see below) in that participants do not compete against one another.
Some documentary-style programs place cast members, who in most cases previously did not know each other, in artificial living environments; The Real World is the originator of this style. In almost every other such show, cast members are given specific challenges or obstacles to overcome. Road Rules, which started in 1995 as a spin-off of The Real World, started this pattern: the cast traveled across the country guided by clues and performing tasks.
Big Brother is probably the best known program of this type in the world, with around 50 international versions having been produced. Other shows in this category, such as The 1900 House, involve historical re-enactment, with cast members living and working as people of a specific time and place. 2001's Temptation Island achieved some notoriety by placing several couples on an island surrounded by single people in order to test the couples' commitment to each other. U8TV: The Lofters combined the "special living environment" format with the "professional activity" format noted earlier; in addition to living together in a loft, each member of the show's cast was hired to host a television program for a Canadian cable channel.
Originally, court shows were all dramatized and staged programs with actors playing the litigants, witnesses and lawyers. The cases were either reenactments of real-life cases or cases that were fictionalized altogether. Among examples of stage courtroom dramas are Famous Jury Trials, Your Witness, and the first two eras of Divorce Court. The People's Court revolutionized the genre by introducing the arbitration-based "reality" format in 1981, later adopted by the vast majority of court shows. The genre experienced a lull in programming after The People's Court was cancelled in 1993, but then soared after the emergence of Judge Judy in 1996. This led to the debuts of a slew of other reality court shows, such as Judge Mathis, Judge Joe Brown, Judge Alex, Judge Mills Lane and Judge Hatchett.
Though the litigants are legitimate, the "judges" in such shows are actually arbitrators, as these pseudo-judges are not actually presiding in a court of law. Typically, however, they are retired judges, or at least individuals who have had some legal experience.
Courtroom programs are typically daytime television shows that air on weekdays.
The globally syndicated format Dragons' Den shows a group of wealthy investors choosing whether or not to invest in a series of pitched startup companies and entrepreneurial ventures. The series Restaurant Startup similarly involves investors, but involves more of a game show element in which restaurant owners compete to prove their worth. The British series Show Me the Monet offers a twist in which artworks' artistic value, rather than their financial value, is appraised by a panel of judges, who determine whether each one will be featured at an exhibition.
Another subgenre places people in wild and challenging natural settings. This includes such shows as Survivorman, Man vs. Wild, Marooned with Ed Stafford and Naked and Afraid. The shows Survivor and Get Out Alive with Bear Grylls combine outdoor survival with a competition format, although in Survivor the competition also involves social dynamics.
Some reality television shows cover a person or group of people improving their lives. Sometimes the same group of people are covered over an entire season (as in The Swan and Celebrity Fit Club), but usually there is a new target for improvement in each episode. Despite differences in the content, the format is usually the same: first the show introduces the subjects in their current, less-than-ideal environment. Then the subjects meet with a group of experts, who give the subjects instructions on how to improve things; they offer aid and encouragement along the way. Finally, the subjects are placed back in their environment and they, along with their friends and family and the experts, appraise the changes that have occurred. Other self-improvement or makeover shows include The Biggest Loser, Extreme Weight Loss and Fat March (which cover weight loss), Extreme Makeover (entire physical appearance), Queer Eye, What Not to Wear, How Do I Look?, Trinny & Susannah Undress... and Snog Marry Avoid? (style and grooming), Supernanny (child-rearing), Made (life transformation), Tool Academy (relationship building) and Charm School and From G's to Gents (self-improvement and manners).
The concept of self-improvement was taken to its extreme with the British show Life Laundry, in which people who had become hoarders, even living in squalor, were given professional assistance. The American television series Hoarders and Hoarding: Buried Alive follow similar premises, presenting interventions in the lives of people who suffer from compulsive hoarding.
In one study, participants who admitted to watching more reality television were more likely to proceed with a desired plastic surgery than those who watched less.
Some shows make over part or all of a person's living space, work space, or vehicle. The American series This Old House, which debuted in 1979, features the start-to-finish renovation of different houses through a season; media critic Jeff Jarvis has speculated that it is "the original reality TV show." The British show Changing Rooms, beginning in 1996 (later remade in the U.S. as Trading Spaces) was the first such renovation show that added a game show feel with different weekly contestants.
House renovation shows are a mainstay on the American/Canadian cable channel HGTV, whose renovation shows include the successful franchises Flip or Flop, Love It or List It and Property Brothers, as well as shows such as Debbie Travis' Facelift, Designed to Sell and Holmes on Homes. Non-HGTV shows in this category include Extreme Makeover: Home Edition and While You Were Out.
Another type of reality program is the social experiment that produces drama, conflict, and sometimes transformation. British TV series Wife Swap, which began in 2003, and has had many spinoffs in the UK and other countries, is a notable example. In the show, people with different values agree to live by each other's social rules for a brief period of time. Other shows in this category include Trading Spouses, Bad Girls Club and Holiday Showdown. Faking It was a series where people had to learn a new skill and pass themselves off as experts in that skill. Shattered was a controversial 2004 UK series in which contestants competed for how long they could go without sleep. Solitary was a controversial 2006-2010 Fox Reality series that isolated contestants for weeks in solitary confinement pods with limited sleep, food and information while competing in elimination challenges ended by a quit button, causing winners to go on for much longer than needed as a blind gamble to not be the first person to quit.
Another type of reality programming features hidden cameras rolling when random passers-by encounter a staged situation. Candid Camera, which first aired on television in 1948, pioneered the format. Modern variants of this type of production include Punk'd, Trigger Happy TV, Primetime: What Would You Do?, The Jamie Kennedy Experiment and Just for Laughs: Gags. The series Scare Tactics and Room 401 are hidden-camera programs in which the goal is to frighten contestants rather than just befuddle or amuse them. Not all hidden camera shows use strictly staged situations. For example, the syndicated program Cheaters purports to use hidden cameras to record suspected cheating partners, although the authenticity of the show has been questioned, and even refuted by some who have been featured on the series. Once the evidence has been gathered, the accuser confronts the cheating partner with the assistance of the host. In many special-living documentary programs, hidden cameras are set up all over the residence in order to capture moments missed by the regular camera crew, or intimate bedroom footage.
Supernatural and paranormal reality shows such as MTV's Fear, place participants into frightening situations which ostensibly involve paranormal phenomena such as ghosts, telekinesis or haunted houses. In series such as Celebrity Paranormal Project, the stated aim is investigation, and some series like Scariest Places on Earth challenge participants to survive the investigation; whereas others such as Paranormal State and Ghost Hunters use a recurring crew of paranormal researchers. In general, the shows follow similar stylized patterns of night vision, surveillance, and hand held camera footage; odd angles; subtitles establishing place and time; desaturated imagery; and non-melodic soundtracks. Noting the trend in reality shows that take the paranormal at face value, New York Times culture editor Mike Hale characterized ghost hunting shows as "pure theater" and compared the genre to professional wrestling or softcore pornography for its formulaic, teasing approach.
In hoax reality shows, a false premise is presented to some of the series participants; the rest of the cast may contain actors who are in on the joke. These shows often served to parody the conventions of the reality television genre. The first such show was the 2003 American series The Joe Schmo Show. Other examples are My Big Fat Obnoxious Boss (modeled after The Apprentice), My Big Fat Obnoxious Fiance, Hell Date (modeled after Blind Date), Superstar USA (modeled after American Idol), Bedsitcom (modeled after Big Brother), Space Cadets (which convinced the hoax targets that they were being flown into space), Invasion Iowa (in which a town was convinced that William Shatner was filming a movie there) and Reality Hell (which featured a different target and premise every episode). Other hoax shows are not intended for comedic effect and do not include actors. In some shows, a person of wealth or power has their identity disguised so that they can go among less-privileged people in order to see them in their natural state and judge their worthiness for largesse; the other participants are not told the true nature of the show during filming. Popular examples include Undercover Boss (though that show is also intended to let bosses see their business more accurately) and The Secret Millionaire. Other shows, though not hoax shows per se, have offered misleading information to some cast members in order to add a wrinkle to the competition. Examples include Boy Meets Boy and Joe Millionaire.
Another subgenre of reality television is "reality competition", "reality playoffs", or so-called "reality game shows," which follow the format of non-tournament elimination contests. Typically, participants are filmed competing to win a prize, often while living together in a confined environment. In many cases, participants are removed until only one person or team remains, who is then declared the winner. Usually this is done by eliminating participants one at a time (or sometimes two at a time, as an episodic twist due to the number of contestants involved and the length of a given season), through either disapproval voting or by voting for the most popular to win. Voting is done by the viewing audience, the show's own participants, a panel of judges, or some combination of the three.
A well-known example of a reality-competition show is the globally syndicated Big Brother, in which cast members live together in the same house, with participants removed at regular intervals by either the viewing audience or, in the American version, by the participants themselves. There remains disagreement over whether talent-search shows such as the Idol series, the Got Talent series and the Dancing with the Stars series are truly reality television, or just newer incarnations of shows such as Star Search. Although the shows involve a traditional talent search, the shows follow the reality-competition conventions of removing one or more contestants in every episode, allowing the public to vote on who is removed, and interspersing performances with video clips showing the contestants' "back stories", their thoughts about the competition, their rehearsals and unguarded behind-the-scenes moments. Additionally, there is a good deal of unscripted interaction shown between contestants and judges. The American Primetime Emmy Awards have nominated both American Idol and Dancing with the Stars for the Outstanding Reality-Competition Program Emmy.
Game shows like Weakest Link, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, American Gladiators and Deal or No Deal, which were popular in the 2000s, also lie in a gray area: like traditional game shows (e.g., The Price Is Right, Jeopardy!), the action takes place in an enclosed television studio over a short period of time; however, they have higher production values, more dramatic background music, and higher stakes than traditional shows (done either through putting contestants into physical danger or offering large cash prizes). In addition, there is more interaction between contestants and hosts, and in some cases they feature reality-style contestant competition or elimination as well. These factors, as well as these shows' rise in global popularity at the same time as the arrival of the reality craze, have led to such shows often being grouped under both the reality television and game show umbrellas. There have been various hybrid reality-competition shows, like the worldwide-syndicated Star Academy, which combines the Big Brother and Idol formats, The Biggest Loser, which combines competition with the self-improvement format, and American Inventor, which uses the Idol format for products instead of people. Some reality shows that aired mostly during the early 2000s, such as Popstars, Making the Band and Project Greenlight, devoted the first part of the season to selecting a winner, and the second part to showing that person or group of people working on a project.
Popular variants of the competition-based format include the following:
Dating-based competition shows follow a contestant choosing one out of a group of suitors. Over the course of either a single episode or an entire season, suitors are eliminated until only the contestant and the final suitor remains. In the early 2000s, this type of reality show dominated the other genres on the major U.S. networks. Shows that aired included The Bachelor, its spin-off The Bachelorette, as well as Temptation Island and Average Joe. In Married by America, contestants were chosen by viewer voting. More recent such shows include Flavor of Love (a dating show featuring rapper Flavor Flav that led directly and indirectly to over 10 spinoffs), The Cougar and Love in the Wild. This is one of the older variants of the format; shows such as The Dating Game that date to the 1960s had similar premises (though each episode was self-contained, and not the serial format of more modern shows).
In this category, the competition revolves around a skill that contestants were pre-screened for. Competitors perform a variety of tasks based on that skill, are judged, and are then kept or removed by a single expert or a panel of experts. The show is usually presented as a job search of some kind, in which the prize for the winner includes a contract to perform that kind of work and an undisclosed salary, although the award can simply be a sum of money and ancillary prizes, like a cover article in a magazine. The show also features judges who act as counselors, mediators and sometimes mentors to help contestants develop their skills further or perhaps decide their future position in the competition. Popstars, which debuted in 1999, may have been the first such show, while the Idol series has been the longest-running and, for most of its run, the most popular such franchise. The first job-search show which showed dramatic, unscripted situations may have been America's Next Top Model, which premiered in May 2003. Other examples include The Apprentice (which judges business skills); Hell's Kitchen, MasterChef and Top Chef (for chefs); Shear Genius (for hair styling), Project Runway (for clothing design), Top Design (for interior design), Stylista (for fashion editors), Last Comic Standing (for comedians), I Know My Kid's a Star (for child performers), On the Lot (for filmmakers), RuPaul's Drag Race (for drag queens), The Shot (for fashion photographers), So You Think You Can Dance (for dancers), MuchMusic VJ Search and Food Network Star (for television hosts), Dream Job (for sportscasters), American Candidate (for aspiring politicians), Work of Art (for artists), Face Off (for makeup artists), Ink Master and Best Ink (for tattoo artists), Platinum Hit (for songwriters) and The Tester (for game testers).
A notable subset is shows in which the winner gets a specific part a known film, television show, musical or performing group. Examples include Scream Queens (where the prize is a role in the Saw film series), The Glee Project (for a role on the television show Glee) and Any Dream Will Do (the lead role in a revival of the musical Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat). The most extreme prize for such a show may have been for 2005's Rock Star: INXS, where the winner became the lead singer of the rock band INXS. J.D. Fortune, who won the show, went on to be INXS's lead singer until 2011.
Some shows use the same format with celebrities: in this case, there is no expectation that the winner will continue this line of work, and prize winnings often go to charity. The most popular such shows have been the Dancing with the Stars and Dancing on Ice franchises. Other examples of celebrity competition programs include Deadline, Celebracadabra and Celebrity Apprentice.
Most of these programs create a sporting competition among athletes attempting to establish their name in that sport. The Club, in 2002, was one of the first shows to immerse sport with reality television, based on a fabricated club competing against real clubs in the sport of Australian rules football; the audience helped select which players played each week by voting for their favorites. Golf Channel's The Big Break is a reality show in which aspiring golfers compete against one another and are eliminated. The Contender, a boxing show, became the first American reality show in which a contestant committed suicide after being eliminated from the show; the show's winner was promised a shot at a boxing world championship. Sergio Mora, who won, indeed got his title shot and became a world champion boxer. In The Ultimate Fighter, participants have voluntarily withdrawn or expressed the desire to withdraw from the show due to competitive pressure.
In sports shows, sometimes just appearing on the show, not necessarily winning, can get a contestant the job. The owner of UFC declared that the final match of the first season of Ultimate Fighter was so good, both contestants were offered a contract, and in addition, many non-winning "TUF Alumni" have prospered in the UFC. Many of the losers from World Wrestling Entertainment's Tough Enough and Diva Search shows have been picked up by the company.
Not all sports programs involve athletes trying to make a name in the sport. The 2006 U.S. reality series Knight School focused on students at Texas Tech University vying for a walk-on (non-scholarship) roster position on the school's men's basketball team under legendary coach Bob Knight. In the Republic of Ireland, RTÉ One's Celebrity Bainisteoir involves eight non-sporting Irish celebrities becoming bainisteoiri (managers) of mid-level Gaelic football teams, leading their teams in an officially sanctioned tournament.
One concept pioneered by, and unique to, reality competition shows is the idea of immunity, in which a contestant can win the right to be exempt the next time contestants are eliminated from the show. Possibly the first instance of immunity in reality TV was on Survivor, which premiered in 1997 in Sweden as Expedition Robinson, before gaining international prominence after the American edition (titled Survivor) premiered in 2000. On that show, there are complex rules around immunity: a player can achieve it by winning challenges (either as a team in the tribal phase or individually in the merged phase), or, in more recent seasons, through finding a hidden totem. They can also pass on their immunity to someone else and in the later case, they can keep their immunity secret from other players.
On most shows, immunity is quite a bit simpler: it is usually achieved by winning a task, often a relatively minor task during the first half of the episode; the announcement of immunity is made publicly and immunity is usually non-transferable. Competition shows that feature immunity include the Apprentice, Big Brother, Biggest Loser, Top Model and Top Chef franchises. In one Apprentice episode, a participant chose to waive his earned immunity and was immediately "fired" by Donald Trump for giving up this powerful asset.
The authenticity of reality television is often called into question by its detractors. The genre's title of "reality" is often criticized as being inaccurate because of claims that the genre frequently includes elements such as premeditated scripting (including a practice called "soft-scripting"), acting, urgings from behind-the-scenes crew to create specified situations of adversity and drama, and misleading editing. It has often been described as "scripting without paper".
In many cases, the entire premise of the show is a contrived one, based around a competition or another unusual situation. However, various shows have additionally been accused of using fakery in order to create more compelling television, such as having premeditated storylines and in some cases feeding participants lines of dialogue, focusing only on participants' most outlandish behavior, and altering events through editing and re-shoots.
Television shows that have been notably accused of, or admitted to, deception include The Real World, the U.S. version of Survivor, Joe Millionaire, The Hills, Hell's Kitchen, A Shot at Love with Tila Tequila, Hogan Knows Best, Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, The Bachelor and The Bachelorette, Pawn Stars, Storage Wars, and Keeping Up with the Kardashians.
Reality television's global successes has become, in the view of some analysts, an important political phenomenon. In some authoritarian countries, reality-television voting has provided the first opportunity for many citizens to voted in any free and fair wide-scale "elections". In addition, the frankness of the settings on some reality shows presents situations that are often taboo in certain conservative cultures, like Star Academy Arab World, which began airing in 2003, and which shows male and female contestants living together. A Pan-Arab version of Big Brother was cancelled in 2004 after less than two weeks on the air after a public outcry and street protests. In 2004 journalist Matt Labash, noting both of these issues, wrote that "the best hope of little Americas developing in the Middle East could be Arab-produced reality TV".
In 2007, Abu Dhabi TV began airing Million's Poet, a show featuring Pop Idol-style voting and elimination, but for the writing and oration of Arabic poetry. The show became popular in Arab countries, with around 18 million viewers, partly because it was able to combine the excitement of reality television with a traditional, culturally relevant topic. In April 2010, however, the show also become a subject of political controversy, when Hissa Hilal, a 43-year-old female Saudi competitor, read out a poem criticizing her country's Muslim clerics. Both critics and the public reacted favorably to Hilal's poetry; she received the highest scores from the judges throughout the competition, and came in third place overall.
In India, in the summer of 2007, coverage of the third season of Indian Idol focused on the breaking down of cultural and socioeconomic barriers as the public rallied around the show's top two contestants.
The Chinese singing competition Super Girl (a local imitation of Pop Idol) has similarly been cited for its political and cultural impact. After the finale of the show's 2005 season drew an audience of around 400 million people, and eight million text-message votes, the state-run English-language newspaper Beijing Today ran the front-page headline: "Is Super Girl a Force for Democracy?" The Chinese government criticized the show, citing both its democratic nature and its excessive vulgarity, or "worldliness", and in 2006 banned it outright. It was later reintroduced in 2009, before being banned again in 2011. Super Girl has also been criticized by non-government commentators for creating seemingly impossible ideals that may be harmful to Chinese youth.
In Indonesia, reality television shows have surpassed soap operas as the most-watched broadcast programs. One popular program, Jika Aku Menjadi ("If I Were"), follows young, middle-class people as they are temporarily placed into lower-class life, where they learn to appreciate their circumstances back home by experiencing daily life for the less fortunate. Critics have claimed that this and similar programs in Indonesia reinforce traditionally Western ideals of materialism and consumerism. However, Eko Nugroho, reality-show producer and president of Dreamlight World Media, insists that these reality shows are not promoting American lifestyles but rather reaching people through their universal desires.
Reality television has also received criticism in Britain and the United States for its ideological relationship with surveillance societies and consumerism. Writing in the New York Times in 2012, author Mark Andrejevic characterised the role of reality television in a post-9-11 society as the normalisation of surveillance in participatory monitoring, the "logic of the emerging surveillance economy", and in the promise of a societal self-image that is contrived. An LSE paper by Nick Couldry associates reality television with neoliberalism, condemning the ritualised enactment and consumption of what must be legitimised for the society it serves.
Reality television generally costs less to produce than scripted series.
VH1 executive vice president Michael Hirschorn wrote in 2007 that the plots and subject matters on reality television are more authentic and more engaging than in scripted dramas, writing that scripted network television "remains dominated by variants on the police procedural... in which a stock group of characters (ethnically, sexually, and generationally diverse) grapples with endless versions of the same dilemma. The episodes have all the ritual predictability of Japanese Noh theater," while reality television is "the liveliest genre on the set right now. It has engaged hot-button cultural issues – class, sex, race – that respectable television... rarely touches."
Television critic James Poniewozik wrote that reality shows like Deadliest Catch and Ice Road Truckers showcase working-class people of the kind that "used to be routine" on scripted network television, but that became a rarity in the 2000s: "The better to woo upscale viewers, TV has evicted its mechanics and dockworkers to collect higher rents from yuppies in coffeehouses."
Reality television has the potential to turn its participants into national celebrities, at least for a short period. This is most notable in talent-search programs such as Idol and The X Factor, which have spawned music stars in many of the countries in which they have aired. Many other shows, however, have made at least temporary celebrities out of their participants; some participants have then been able to parlay this fame into media and merchandising careers. For example, Elisabeth Hasselbeck, a contestant on Survivor: The Australian Outback, later became a host on daytime talk show The View and a correspondent on Fox and Friends. Participants of non-talent-search programs who have had subsequent acting careers include Jacinda Barrett, Kristin Cavallari, Jamie Chung, Stephen Colletti, David Giuntoli, NeNe Leakes and Angela Trimbur; though Barrett and Trimbur were already aspiring actresses when they appeared on reality television. Several cast members of MTV's Jersey Shore had lucrative endorsement deals, and in some cases their own product lines, when the show aired and in subsequent years. Tiffany Pollard, originally a contestant on Flavor of Love, was eventually given four additional reality series of her own on VH1. In Britain, Jade Goody became famous after appearing on Big Brother 3 in 2002; she later appeared on other reality programs, wrote a bestselling autobiography and launched a top-selling perfume line. She later received extensive media coverage during her battle with cervical cancer, from which she died in 2009. Bethenny Frankel, who gained fame after appearing on several reality television shows, launched the successful brand Skinnygirl Cocktails, and got her own short-lived syndicated talk show, Bethenny. Two cast members of non-athletic reality shows, Mike "The Miz" Mizanin (from The Real World and its spin-off, The Challenge) and David Otunga (from I Love New York), became professional wrestlers for the WWE.
In Australia, various reality TV personalities have later served as radio hosts, including Fitzy and Rachel Corbett from Big Brother, Mick Newell from My Kitchen Rules, Heather Maltman from The Bachelor, and Sam Frost from The Bachelorette.
Several socialites, or children of famous parents, who were somewhat well-known before they appeared on reality television shows have become much more famous as a result, including Paris Hilton, Nicole Richie, Kelly Osbourne, Kim Kardashian, and many of the rest of the Kardashian family.
Reality television personalities are sometimes derided as "Z-list celebrities", "Bravolebrities", or "nonebrities" who are effectively "famous for being famous" and have done nothing to warrant their sudden fame. Some have been lampooned for exploiting an undeserved "15 minutes of fame". The Kardashian family is one such group of reality television personalities who were subject to this criticism in the 2010s, Kim Kardashian in particular.
Two international franchises, The Apprentice and Dragons' Den, are notable for having some of the business people who appeared there as judges and investors go on to win political office. The prime example is U.S. President Donald Trump: his stint as host of the original The Apprentice from 2004 to 2015 has been credited by some commentators as a factor in his political success, since it greatly increased his fame, and showcased him as a tough and experienced authority figure. João Doria Jr., who hosted seasons 7-8 of the Brazilian version of The Apprentice, O Aprendiz, from 2010 to 2011, is currently Mayor of São Paulo. Harry Harkimo, who hosted the Finnish version of The Apprentice from 2009 to 2013, was elected to the Parliament of Finland in 2015. Israeli tech entrepreneur Nir Barkat, who appeared in 2007 as an investor on HaKrishim, Israel's version of Dragons' Den, was elected Mayor of Jerusalem the following year. Dragon's Den investors who have unsuccessfully run for office include Serhiy Tihipko of Ukraine and Kevin O'Leary of Canada.
In 2006, four of the ten most popular programs among viewers under 17 were reality shows. Studies have shown that young people emulate the behavior displayed on these programs, gathering much of their knowledge of the social world, particularly about consumer practices, from television. Some critics have decried the positive representation of sexually objectified women in shows like The Girls Next Door.
A number of studies have tried to pinpoint the appeal of reality television. Factors that have been cited in its appeal include personal identification with the onscreen participants; pure entertainment; diversion from scripted TV; vicarious participation; a feeling of self-importance compared to onscreen participants; enjoyment of competition; and an appeal to voyeurism, especially given "scenes which take place in private settings, contain nudity, or include gossip". Batya Ungar-Sargon, PhD believes reality TV's appeal comes from people taking pleasure in watching the suffering or humiliation of the show's protagonists.
A number of fictional works since the 1940s have contained elements similar to elements of reality television. They tended to be set in a dystopian future, with subjects being recorded against their will, and often involved violence.
Some scripted and written works have used reality television as a plot device:
A number of scripted television comedy and satire shows have adopted the format of the documentary-type reality television show, in "mockumentary" style. The first such show was the BBC series Operation Good Guys, which premiered in 1997. Subsequent examples include People Like Us (BBC UK, 1998), The Games (ABC Australia, 1999), Trailer Park Boys (2001), Reno 911! (2003), Drawn Together (2004), The Naked Brothers Band (2006), Summer Heights High (2007), Total Drama (2007), Parks and Recreation (2009), Modern Family (2009), Come Fly With Me (2010), The Muppets (2015) and Trial & Error (2017). Arguably the best-known and most influential "mockumentary" sitcom is the BBC's The Office (2001), which spawned numerous international remakes, including a successful American version.
The 2013-2015 American sketch comedy series Kroll Show set most of its sketches as excerpts from various fictional reality television shows, which one critic wrote "aren't far off from the lineups at E!, Bravo, and VH1", and parodied those shows' participants' "lack of self-awareness". The show also satirized the often incestuous nature of reality television, in which some series lead to a cascade of spinoffs. Kroll Show executive producer John Levenstein said in an interview that reality TV "has so many tools for telling stories in terms of text and flashbacks and ways to show things to the audience that it's incredibly convenient for comedy and storytelling if you use the full reality show toolkit."
Some feature films have been produced that use some of the conventions of documentary film or reality television; such films are sometimes referred to as reality films, and sometimes simply as documentaries. Allen Funt's 1970 hidden camera movie What Do You Say to a Naked Lady? was based on his reality-television show Candid Camera.
The television series Jackass has spawned a number of films, including Jackass: The Movie (2002), Jackass Number Two (2006), Jackass 3D (2010), and Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa (2013). A similar show, Extreme Duudsonit, was adapted for the film The Dudesons Movie in 2006. The producers of The Real World created The Real Cancun in 2003. The Chinese reality show Running Man was adapted for the 2015 film Running Man.
In 2007, broadcaster Krishnan Guru-Murthy stated that reality television is "a firm and embedded part of television's vocabulary, used in every genre from game-shows and drama to news and current affairs."
The mumblecore film genre, which began in the mid-2000s, and uses video cameras and relies heavily on improvisation and non-professional actors, has been described as influenced in part by what one critic called "the spring-break psychodrama of MTV's The Real World". Mumblecore director Joe Swanberg has said, "As annoying as reality TV is, it's been really good for filmmakers because it got mainstream audiences used to watching shaky camerawork and different kinds of situations."
The viewers are seeing the PRODUCED side of her show and not so much the genuine stuff, and she looks silly because of it... A LOT TAKES PLACE IN THE EDITING ROOM!
We need our fair share of villains every season. And now we're very careful in our casting...to develop characters that the audience is going to root for and root against
"We are very careful in our casting to develop characters that the audience is going to root for and root against." Fleiss admits that his show has less to do with "reality" than it does making good television. Which is all fine and good... if a few moments later he hadn't claimed that the whole premise was romance and the search for love.
Such women are symbolic of both the triumph and failure of consumerism and popular culture, where Playboy models and reality TV stars are revered by a younger, impressionable generation.